The reality of self-driving cars and autonomous public transport is almost upon us. In Karlsruhe, three autonomous buses have been running since April. The buses don’t run specific routes, rather, they can be ordered to certain places.
Back in April, the city of Karlsruhe welcomed Vera, Ella and Anna to its streets. These are the names of three autonomous e-buses, which are part of a project funded by the Ministry for Transport. The project runs to the end of June and, according to the Karlsruhe Transport Authority (VBK), is unique to Germany.
The three e-buses don’t run on any specific route. Instead, they can be ordered for free using an app and passengers can choose the location, whether that be to a nearby train station, or simply just for a tour around the area.
The buses have proved particularly popular, with the bus serving the Weiherfeld-Dammerstock district of Karlsruhe carrying over 500 passengers across 300 trips by mid-May. People have even travelled from Stuttgart to try out the service.
Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) has called for safety to be first and foremost when dealing with autonomous transport. Karlsruhe’s e-buses have no problems as long as the buses don’t travel above 20 kilometres per hour. However, should the buses be introduced into regular traffic, they would need to be faster.
City traffic also poses other issues, like pedestrians and cyclists. “There are very many individuals who make unpredictable decisions. Nobody can know in advance whether a pedestrian will stop or continue running," said Siegfried Brockmann, the head of Accident Research for Insurers in the German Insurance Association.
At the present moment, a security driver is present in Karlsruhe, who can take control of the buses at any time. The security drivers are mostly involved with restarting the buses, which stop if they sense an obstacle, but must also be on hand to activate the emergency brake if needed. "You have to expect the vehicle could do something it shouldn't do at any moment," according to Christoph, a VBK safety driver.
Professor J. Marius Zöllner, scientific director at the FZI Research Centre for Information Technology, hopes the information gathered from the project can provide some insight into how to improve the buses, as well as how people react to them in traffic. “From a technical point of view, we learned above all that the concept of free automated driving is very applicable,” he said.
VBK’s managing director, Alexander Pischon, echoed this sentiment and suggested that such vehicles could be used to bridge public transport gaps at night or on weekends.